Introduction to a world of frustrations
Social networking is extremely useful in our modern day context. Being thousands of miles away from family and friends, I have integrated social networking into my daily routine. However, the technologies and concepts that drive social networking is changing rapidly. While existing ideas are improved and remodelled to fit into newer social trends, new concepts and ideas completely break away to form new networks. Due to these disjointed social networks, users are left with no option but to be enrolled in over a dozen different networks to stay in touch with their circle of friends. This is counter-productive and often the source of much frustration.
The flip side of the argument is ‘choice’. Users are able to pick from a wide range of technologies that are fitting to their needs. However, choice is also the main reason for division. As a user, my main goal in social networking is to keep in touch with my friends. Having to enrol in multiple networks, as choices between my peers differ, is extremely inconvenient.
Therefore, I believe that the biggest need for users now is a unifying technology to centralize our large collections of social networks. The ideal scenario is a single location and interface for accessing various features across all the popular networks I am enrolled in. This way, I am able to interact with my circle of friends as a single entity.
In the following sections of my reflection, I will briefly highlight the various accounts I am enrolled in, as background, to support my research and thoughts into the reasons for disjointed networks and integrating these social environments to a manageable number of technologies, if not ideally a single solution.
Background of my elaborate internet usage
There is clearly too many to keep up with. Here is a quick rundown of my experience in the connected world of social networking:
I am enrolled in at least three full-featured social networks. Facebook is my favourite as it has the largest user- base and also the best features. I hardly keep track of my Friendster and Hi5 accounts. Every so often, I have passionate commentaries that I like to share with the world in my Wordpress blog. I use twitter to keep my friends informed of “what I am doing” and to voice out my opinions on the day-to-day happenings.
For direct communications I use email and instant messaging (IM). I use three email accounts regularly for work, personal and educational purposes. For IM, I utilise Windows Live Messenger. However, the call quality is superior in Skype. I am forced to keep it on for frequent family (of the 21st century) conferences.
I am serious about my photos. Facebook is extremely effective due to its wide reach and large number of users. It has an efficient workflow with regards to tagging, publishing and commenting. However, the 604px limit enforced by Facebook affects the quality of the pictures. Therefore, I use Flickr to store a part of my collection for purely the quality factor.
The list goes on with Delicious for bookmarks, Digg and Arstechnica for teach-news, Last.FM and Zune social at times for music preferences. There is clearly too many to keep up with. Often, I resort to neglect.
Competition brings about innovation and keeps everyone on their toes. From a technical and marketing point of view, it is good to have a variety of offerings for users. Social sites continuously work on improving their existing features and extend functionality as a whole to attract more users. If Facebook can do the job of Twitter and more, there is not much incentive to be with Twitter at all. The growing base of users can drive ad-sales and other forms of revenue for these companies.
As users, it is great to have a choice and flexibility. However, there are few key elements that are neglected in this process. Most importantly, the choice created by having multiple networks is not convenient with regards to maintaining a circle of friends as a single entity. The community of friends are dissected and spread across multiple locations. Soon, virtual space starts having the same problems users encounter in the physical world. The “virtual locations” become too inconvenient as some are further apart in terms of time and effort to maintain. This is the barrier that social networking should attempt to bridge in the first place.
Moreover, when features get supercharged into bigger and better features, they become much more complex. For example, Facebook status messages allow users to publish messages in text with the choice of attached videos, pictures and links. Much of these new “improvements” in the second redesign of Facebook has been met with passionate hatred from its community to rollback the changes. In a technical point of view, the status message features seem like a great step forward. However, the simplicity and familiarity is something most users prefer over complex useful changes.
This is the primary reason for the success of Twitter. Twitter is essentially a list; a bare minimum for any form of communication. At first glance, it seems like a job half-done. However, this makes it so easy to use that even a six year old child could pick it up! Yet, it can be used in so many useful ways to stay in touch with family and friends. Most users of this service integrate Twitter to their daily lives seamlessly. These characteristics have made Twitter a huge success on the web.
So how do we rectify the competitive features with their varying complexities?
Most solutions are suggesting frameworks for extendable social networks as they have the ability to sustain growth in a number of ways. In “A Unifying Framework for Building Social Computing Applications,” Renato and Luiz present a model for integrating features that is scalable . In my opinion, this is not the right solution. Technology is progressive and each one needs to build on the existing ones to keep the users interested. Implementing a new concept is just an addition to the number of networks that already exist.
A better solution is needed to integrate existing networks. To start off, few basic things need to be in order.
Firstly, an efficient way to identify and merge friends that appear across multiple networks is important. If a user authors content across multiple networks, they should appear under a single account. This should either be done at the software level or social networks should adopt common identity protocols such as OpenID and Windows CardSpace.
Secondly, competing features should be handled in a similar way. An ideal example of this would be Facebook status messages and tweets from Twitter. For the user, they should appear as a single feature. The complex handling and authoring of content to various networks appropriately should be handled by the software. Duplication should also be prevented in the process.
First step into achieving integration is a feature that has become popular since the wave of Web 2.0 applications. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) open for public use is the foundation of applications that attempt to integrate multiple networks. Most popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr offer support for external websites and applications to connect into the networks and retrieve and manipulate data.
My results of research into software that attempts to replicate the above functionality can be broken into two categories:
- A subset of the software attempts to integrate as much of the social networks as possible to a familiar interface. It is not necessarily and integration to unite social networks. However, a centralized location is part of the goal.
- Another set of software attempts to present the user with a single universe where multiple social networks are connected to. There is some effort displayed in trying to marry similar features together.
EventBox for Macs (1)
EventBox for Macs uses the publicly available APIs to connect and present users with happenings from multiple social networks. It supports Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and a few other networks. Ultimately they remain as separate networks accessed through the sidebar. The upside is that features like recent activity can be merged into a collective list and all social activity can be accessed through one familiar interface. This is the similar in functionality to FriendFeed.
Flock Browser (1)
This is also known as the “social browser”. Flock is basically Firefox browser with a supercharged interface specially tuned for social networking. Out of the box, Flock supports Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Delicious bookmarks, Flickr, blogging features etc. Add-ons made by the community can further enhance the social experience for users. It is definitely an interesting application with handy features all round. However, the problem with such integrations is that it is not any better than having a few tabs on a regular browser open for the different services. Personally, I found this highly ineffective. There were too many buttons and gadgets attached to the browser, making its interface complex.
Facebook + Twitter + Blogging (2)
Facebook seems to be the preferred way of interacting for the majority with one million new users registering daily . Therefore, software writers try to bring in integration of other tools into Facebook itself using their application features. BlogIT by TypePad is one such application.
This unique tool takes a shot at combining features across multiple networks to stay synchronised. For example, micro-blogging on Twitter is also reflected on a user’s Pownce account and Facebook status messages. Moreover, blog posts can be published across multiple accounts at the same time, while adding a message with a hyperlink to the blog post as a tweet. The idea is great but had two major flaws. Firstly there were repetitions across multiple networks. Secondly, it remained a publishing tool. This meant that changes were only upstream.
Socialstream Project (2)
This project’s goal is the answer to the frustration of being enrolled in multiple networks. Socialstream is a project by Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, funded by Google, to "create a system for users to seamlessly share, view, and respond to many types of social content across multiple networks” .
The end product managed to isolate a few key features of social networking and present them to the user in a unified way, encapsulating the messy details of originating source and handling of complicated matters such as which service the authored content belonged to. The web solution offered recent posts, a time-line of user activity and managed to offer a way to collectively manage friends across all networks as a single group.
This effort, unfortunately, had remained as a research project and not released to the public. However, it is a glimpse of what users can expect in the future.
When integrations become complex, the user interfaces become hard to manage. Therefore, there needs to be more intuitive interfaces which can encompass the vast amounts of data available for the user.
Fidgt invents a new way of discovering a user’s contacts, by allowing the user to search through tagged material. In the Fidgt visualiser, contacts with content tagged to the search keywords gets attracted towards the keywords created. This feature can quickly lead to a user being able to explore his circle of friends in new ways to find unusual connections. There are many applications which attempt to provide such features. You can find another here.
Fidgt also combines duplicate contacts into a single “meta” contact.
The product is still under development, even though a pre-release version can be obtained from its website. It is hours of fun, if you are well connected.
It is good to have healthy competition. It is keeping social networking in the forefront of technological advances. While websites attempt to attract users to new services, they get caught in the middle to make choices that they shouldn’t have to. Effort and consideration should be given to integrating new tools and applications into the existing spaces rather than spawning into more new networks.
It is important to realise that there is always room for improving ideas. Growths of networks like Yammer and Blellow, which merely contextualise Twitter, are great examples of this. However, it is most important to note that at the core of it all, a user is trying to maintain a connection to his/her world through technology and this primary reason should not be hindered in the process.
The next chapter of social networking should focus much on putting everything together; technologies that seamlessly work with one another; technologies that we are able to easily integrate into our existing routines. It is also my believe Facebook has the highest potential to influence users and developers with its over 200 million users.
I hope for much simpler forms of communication for all in the future.
 Capuruço, Renato A. C. and Capretz, Luiz F., "A Unifying Framework for Building Social Computing Applications." Athens : Springer Berlin / Heidelberg, 2008. Vol. 5288, pp. 11-21. 978-3-540-87780-6.
 Stone, Brad., Facebook at 5 - Is It Growing Up Too Fast? - NYTimes.com:. NYTimes.com. [Online] The New York Times, March 28, 2009. [Cited: March 30, 2009.] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/technology/internet/29face.html?_r=1&ref=technology.
 , Socialstream. Carnegie Mellon University. [Online] Human-Computer Interaction Institute, 2006. [Cited: March 31, 2009.] http://hcii.cmu.edu/M-HCI/2006/SocialstreamProject/index.php.